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September 03, 2013



Thanks for the considered response. I believe you have taken some of my tongue-in-cheek examples (the cat thing) and the overly linkbait-ey title of the post a bit too seriously.

First, I don't disagree that there is a time and a place for big strategy. But I would argue that many of those have little to do with actually making great products and more to do with building consensus, internal cultural factors, and a desire for stakeholders to know what they're going to get if they invest time, money and resources toward something. That's not a business that I'm in, and those aren't problems I am personally very interested in solving.

Second, the post is as much a philosophy as it is a personal manifesto. I do not want to spend time creating demand through marketing. I want to create solutions to problems people have in their lives. This is not traditionally the domain of marketing, advertising or agencies, but it is what we do at Teehan+Lax. The approach I have outlined doesn't work as well in a scenario where you are charged with creating demand and can't impact the product itself (think: PR, most advertising, etc.)

Third, I deliberately went into little detail about our specific approach to strategy. Unfortunately we have a lot of admirers who like to imitate what we do. At this point, we're waiting to have some more case studies of our new approach before we talk in greater detail about it. I do want to re-emphasize this doesn't mean you don't do strategy, and that some of the same tools don't apply. Rather, it means we spend very little time up front and believe deeply in making decisions as we build things. This is the real shift I care about. I don't believe in strategy for the sake of strategy.

I, like you, have no doubt created very elegant approaches that were grounded in seemingly deep insight -- approaches that sat on someone's desk and couldn't or wouldn't be executed against. I have fetishized the idea and story I was telling. I no longer want to be precious about nailing a perfect idea up front and acting like a salesman hoping we can actually push that through to production if the client agrees. Production and strategy are one. It is how great digital products are created. And there's only so much you can know up front. You know the quote: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." I've seen too many plans that get punched in the face, and too many plans that end up being an elaborate fantasy to consider the status quo approach to strategy acceptable for the work I do and find meaningful. Expensive, time-consuming plans that sit on a table and failed plans are *our* failure as strategists.

Hey Eric-

Those were the examples you used, so not sure what to tell you there. And you compared what you do at Teehan to other digital agencies without making the distinction that what you do today isn't the same job as you did before. And then you went on to accuse those agencies of doing the work they do only because they want to steal a few more bucks. Which is, of course, nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

I would also be careful to not overgeneralize your specific experience at Klick or TF with how everyone else does strategy. Some of the best work on the planet is getting done with a mix of old school and new school methods across agencies like Wieden, Goodby, BBH, etc. etc. It's not accident that some of the highest quality ideas developed today are happening at the shops with the highest quality strategy teams, too.

So a few points in response.

For point 1 - I would call all of those factors making things for real clients in the real world. So yes, internal culture is part of what we have to consider. It is also a reality for most companies on the planet. If your company philosophy is to avoid complex organizations or complex projects for organizations, that's fine. You just didn't make that distinction.

Second to that, you sound like you're making the case that research before building is unnecessary. Which frankly, whether Ideo or Ogilvy, they spend a lot of time understanding what it is they are trying to do before they start making. It may be a super inclusive and active process, but it's really hard to find those problems to solve without spending time defining them. To my prior point, you may solve a problem, but it could be inconsequential, wrong or just your own problem. Not a problem for the people you are making tools, experiences, whatever, for.

For point 2 - Is that not a fairly arbitrary line? Like we make stuff people actually use, too. if we're designing a loyalty program, that can be awesome enough that people enjoy it, talk about it, use it, yada yada. We engage both at the brand level and at a product level. Sometimes at the same time.

Either way, I really dislike the idea that a product and how you create demand for that product exist in two different planes of experience. It just gets back to that old mantra that advertising is the price of being boring, which isn't true and never has been true. Advertising is the price of scale and there is always and will always be a push and pull between the product and the expression of the brand. But you'd need some serious blinders on to diminish the real value that brands provide both companies and consumers.

We have 4 different brands we're building from the ground up in-house today, but all are built with a close eye on their cultural value and what and how they communicate, not some dogma that says marketing has to be a choice of one thing or the other.

As to your last paragraph, I agree with the failure of creating ideas that don't come to life. But usually that happens because we ignored all the other elements you dismissed earlier. You don't get things to move by ignoring the consensus you need to get things moving in most organizations. You can make the choice to work for lone entrepreneurs or dictatorships, but there are only so many of those to go around. It's just not reality for 95% of those you're preaching to. We need more people sharing the tools to make better work happen, not telling them to do something that won't work in most other organizations. At least not without making that distinction clear.

Again Eric, much respect for you and Teehan. And really, most of the conversations I've heard as a result of that article got to basically the same place. Teehan isn't a marketing agency and you are not trying to do methodical approaches to strategy that are more focused on understanding markets, making plans and the rest of it. And all of that is great. And I get it. And I root for you and Teehan's success, but my fundamental issue is that you never said that your company is trying to make something different. You said that most strategists dealing with entirely different problems than the ones you're trying to solve are wasting client money on purpose, and you backed it up with examples that only the crappiest strategist would ever consider to be something resembling strategy.

That said, I'm excited to learn the methods you guys are using to speed things along and jump directly into product development. I'm sure the rest of us will find ways to benefit from that conversation when we're dealing with the challenges we get juiced up about solving, too.

-The American

I seem to have struck a nerve with you. My post was deliberately provocative, though, and the specific examples were meant to be taken with a smile. We all have our own examples of digital landfill, things we worked on that failed, or strategies that went nowhere. I hoped people would fill in the blanks with their own experiences.

I'm going to put aside the fact that you unnecessarily dismissed my experience and assume I know little about what processes other agencies out there have put in place that lead them to do the great work you mention. I can assure you that's definitely not the case, as anyone who has worked with me or knows me well will attest. And I can tell you the blog post resonated positively with a lot of people who work in those places, too. But that's beside the point.

Let's get back to the substance of the matter for a minute. If you go back and read my post, I never said we don't do strategy. I just said we don't spend nearly as much time up front doing strategy. I believe in answering many of the same questions you do, and believe it's my job to focus our teams' creative energy in the right direction through an insight-driven problem definition.

Where we disagree is that there is more than one way to get there -- that there is perhaps a process that exists which is more iterative and less front-loaded.

There's only one point that you didn't refute in my blog post. The most important point is that it is extremely difficult to positively predict solve complex design problems in our heads without starting to walk in a direction and start making stuff. It is both impossible to fully define the problem and therefore fully define the solution in a medium which is so removed from the final output. My entire argument flows from that assertion.

The point is that strategists who are on the hook to deliver a grandiose plan up front greatly risk defining the wrong problem or prescribing the wrong approach. I called this big strategy, but it may be more apt to simply call it bad strategy, as you pointed out (IMO they are closely linked in digital). This is where big strategy fails for me. You seem to have a better track record with that process than I do.

So, if we can accept this for a moment, my job up front is to get to an informed working backlog of user stories as quickly as possible. We have a framework and tools, largely based on jobs-to-be-done that we use up front to uncover the functional, social and emotional jobs customers have in their lives that they are hiring products to solve. We talk to real people to uncover these, and evaluate these jobs in terms of how served or under-served they are (satisfaction, market and tech opportunity, etc.).

Within two weeks I have enough clarity on the real user problems at hand and the direction we should pursue that we can start making things. In real code. Not in a Word doc or in PowerPoint. We make artifacts that people can actually play with so we can learn as we go (this is still strategy!). We've simply accepted that if we have a goal to reach in three months, it doesn't make sense to waste two of those trying to rationalize the world, knowing there's a good chance there's some critical info we couldn't rationalize on paper or couldn't have known up front. (Caveat: What you're making matters a lot here. I'm talking entirely about making digital things that people choose to hire because it solves a real problem they have. With other outputs or mediums, production processes and other factors may not make this approach possible.)

Digital strategy has inherited far too much from traditional ad planning, and it shouldn't be that way. But there aren't many people questioning the status quo because the incentives are aligned to keep things the way they are. (I don't mean other strategists are taking money bags and running laughing, but incentives matter.)

For me, the validation of our approach is in the caliber of work we produce every single day, the positive client feedback about the process, and the reputation our company has amongst our peers. I come to work every day to make epic (digital) shit people want to use, and this is the best way I've discovered to get our batting average up there in terms of success. YMMV.

With regards to big strategy application to making these kinds of digital things, the U.S. military can keep it. I'll need a slightly more inspiring case to be convinced.

Well there you go, I like that argument! I really wish you had just started with everything you just said. One of the things I've always liked about how Teehan grew their presence was how they are constantly adding value to the space. A new framework, an in depth look at how their work comes together, yada yada. Your original post was about creating a foil, I think. Which if you have a better way forward, that's a way more valuable conversation to have.

On incentives, not sure I buy that argument entirely. It makes sense if you are paid by the hour (which I'm not), or if you have essentially unlimited resources but you've reached the limits of what you can actually execute. 9 times out of 10, our budgets are what they are and we're simply defining the best way to allocate those resources to maximize the result. So we're okay taking 5% of a budget and spending it on analytics rather than making something or media because we believe that it'll make the other 95% perform better over time. Same goes for strategy, We're okay spending 5% on strategy because we believe that it'll make the rest of our outputs work better cumulatively.

Ultimately, the incentive for the agency is still to make better work because that is what gets us more fame, more awards, more clients and more profits. So bad agencies may be looking to add a few more short-term bucks, but most are probably just trying to balance resources. Either way, it is questionable enough to not make a blanket statement as to what all of our incentives are. Although, I would agree that it's probably more prevalent at digital shops, only because they are more often charging by the hour.

As far as not answering your statement about complexity - let me take another whack. I agree that the world is incredibly complex and we can't know everything, where we disagree is how then to approach it.

For me, we need to ask really specific questions and design around those. So industry, internal or brand dynamics are super complex, but it doesn't mean that we can ignore them. We just need to know what questions are important and develop a common foundation for how to think about them.

For the audience, we definitely need to consider different forms of research that pulls us away from communicating one key benefit to focus groups and then hoping they tell us the truth. There is unquestionably little value there. So we just need to explore better ways of understanding them, which it sounds like that's what you guys are after. It's an area we're playing with a ton, too. As are many agencies, which is why your insight here is important and valuable.

Then last thing about operating in complexity is increasingly pushing decision making down the line. Once you've worked through directional questions, you have to put tools in place for teams on the ground to make decisions without losing sight of the macro-objectives. Ultimately, giving the most flexibility to those who touch the customers the most is what allows us to stay effective and moving in the same direction when the realities of the market hit us in the face. Doing that takes strong leadership, common understanding across the organization and a whole bunch of trust. Which is part of what makes the strategic work so valuable.

Either way, it sounds like you are doing the upfront work, just more dedicated time, more focused on the audience and maybe without the client presentation in between. So that's good. Spending 2 weeks up front would be a long time for a project with fairly pre-defined output (like we have this objective and we need an app or a website). That's more time than I've usually gotten to get a project into the next phase. And again, i think that's good and important.

You made one statement that struck me as funny - that there's more than one way to get there. That's sort of my point, too. It's not an either or - you take parts of the old and the new and you apply them to the situation that sits in front of you. I just don't like the idea that problems we're running into have to conform to a specific process. Precisely because of that complexity. Sometimes our clients are getting decimated by a certain competitor or changing industry dynamics. You can't be slavish to one particular model unless you only want to think about one particular type of problem. And for me, I'm way to ADD for that.

And one more side note - I wasn't questioning your experience. You just mentioned that your characterization of strategy is how you were taught, so it sounded like that's what you were referring to. I was just widening the argument.

Good debate though, Eric. Happy to see you guys kicking some ass up there.

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